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Designer Diaries  Open the jukebox 

Well, "a fish rots from the head down," they say, and for some reason, people always say they think of me and Grim Fandango when they hear this expression. Probably because I love fish so much! You probably didn't know that but, boy, do I love fish! And that's just one of the fascinating things about me that you can learn by reading my personal and private diary where I tell the dark secrets of what really goes on in the halls of LucasArts! From the dangerous hazing rituals to the unexplainable paranormal phenomena that we see here every day, the Grim Fandango Designer Diaries TELL IT LIKE IT IS! Read them before the government shuts them down!

5th November 1997

Dear Diary,

Guess what? I'm writing to you from the future! Isn't that cool? In my time it's actually November 5, 1997 - the Day of the Dead. I'm just sitting here - in the future - writing my first installment of a designer diary for GameSpot. I hope it will be a candid tell-all, which will hopefully leave you with both a lingering sense of pity for us in game development and a strong desire to rush out and buy Grim Fandango! But to really do it right, I feel that a designer diary should tell the whole story, from beginning to end. So, we need to travel back, way back to June of '95. Full Throttle had just finished, and I was starting to feel a little restless...

Well, Full Throttle has just finished, and I'm starting to feel a little restless. I have no idea what to do next! I should take a vacation, but I'm really nervous about getting a new game started before I leave. And I'm worried someone will steal my office while I'm gone. I should be working on a new idea, but all I seem to be doing is playing Warcraft. I love this game! I don't know what my next game's going to be about, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be one of these Warcraft-style games. That's for sure.

Okay, scrap the Warcraft game idea. What was I thinking? I don't know how to make one of those things! I must have been crazy! I need to stick to what I know - graphic adventures. I think I was just trying to hide from the fact that I don't know what kind of graphic adventure to make. What I really need to do is concentrate. I just have to sit in this chair, clear my mind, and have a good idea. Hmmm... what... kind... of... game...? Need an idea... a really good idea... need an idea for a game... just one simple idea... hmmm... Maybe I just need some coffee.

Hey, how about a 3D graphic adventure that tells a tale of hard, cold crime and corruption in a wildly surreal and mythical world, combining elements of ancient Mexican folklore, classic film noir movies, and '60s-era custom hot rods? Woooo! Caffeine high!

Sometimes things are so easy! Okay, so maybe it wasn't all that easy. Maybe I agonized for months, suffering from writer's block and a paralyzing fear of the blank page. But I'm writing this from the future, so I can remember it anyway I want.

The truth is, I had part of the Fandango idea before I did Full Throttle. I wanted to do a game that would feature those little papier-mache, folk-art skeletons from Mexico. I was looking at their simple shapes and how the bones were just painted on the outside, and I thought, "Texture maps! 3D! The bones will be on the outside! It'll look cool!"

But then I was stuck. I had these skeletons walking around the Land of the Dead. So what? What did they do? Where were they going? What did they want? Who's the main character? Who's the villain? The mythology said that the dead walk the dark plane of the underworld known as Mictlan for fours years, after which their souls arrive at the ninth plane, the Land of Eternal Rest. Sounds pretty "questy" to me. But who supplies the dramatic opposition? Why demons and monsters 'n stuff? There you have it: a game.

"Not cool enough," said Peter Tsacle, my lead artist. "A guy walking in a supernatural world? What's he doing? Supernatural things? It just sounds boring to me. Really boring. In fact, I'm falling asleep just thinking about... zzz."


Well, back to the drawing board...

Getting shot down is always tough, but if you only glean a tiny piece of advice from this diary it's this: There is nothing more valuable than someone who hangs around saying things like "not cool enough," especially when you've got as many assistants and interns and lickspittles as I do, running around you in circles all day, saying things like, "That's why you're the boss," and "You said it, Chairman!" and "You must be right, because you're so handsome!" It's nice to have at least one person hanging around who's bitter enough to speak the ugly truth.

So, after I had Peter fired, I revamped the story. Adventure games are all fantasies really, so I had to ask myself, "Who would people want to BE in a game? What would people want to do?" And in the Land of the Dead, who would people rather be than Death himself? Being the Grim Reaper is just as cool as being a biker, I decided. And what did the Grim Reaper do? He picks up people who have died and carts them over from the other world. Just like a driver of a taxi or limo.

Okay, so that's Manny Calavera, our main character. But who's the bad guy? What's the plot? I had just seen Chinatown, and I really liked the whole water supply/real estate scam that Noah Cross had going there. So of course I tried to rip that off and have Manny be a real estate salesman who got caught up in a real estate scandal. Then he was just like the guys in Glengarry GlenRoss, always looking for the good leads. But why would Hector LeMans, my villain, want real estate? Why would anyone? They're dead! They're only souls. What do souls in the Land of the Dead want?

They want to get out! They want safe passage out, just like in Casablanca! The Land of the Dead is a transitory place, and everybody's waiting around for their travel papers. So Manny is a travel agent, selling tickets on the big train out of town, and Hector's stealing the tickets and - well, I'd better stop there before I start hurting hint book sales.

Anyway, there you have it. That's where game ideas come from: 1) Fear of losing your job, 2) People telling you it's not cool enough yet, 3) A good idea about how to do art for cheap (which will turn out to be wrong later, of course), and 4) A lot of coffee. Then you've just got to trick the company into making it. I'll leave that step - putting together the game proposal and getting it approved - until next time. Until then, I bid you farewell... from the future.

30th January 1998

Dear Diary,

Oh, things here in the future just ain't what they used to be. Times are tough, let me tell you. I've got deadlines like you wouldn't believe. I know what you're thinking: In the future, the world isn't going to have problems like we have back here in 1995. Game development technology will have advanced to the point where everything is planned and anticipated, and no one will have to work the kind of crazy hours we have to - late into the night, up against a wall, trying to meet some impossible deadline. At least that's what I was thinking back in 1995. You are undoubtedly much smarter than I was then. (Of course, I'm much smarter than you now, what with all the brain pills and space food we eat here in 1997.) Every time I go into "crunch mode," I always swear that it will be the last time, that we will never have another crunch mode again. I'm always wrong.

I'm just going to whine about this for one second.

So, it's like this. You wake up late for work because you were up working until 4:00am.... OK, so you were only up working until 2:00am, but then you went home and couldn't sleep so you watched two hours of scrambled movies on premium cable channels that you don't subscribe to. You stumble into work at 10:00am dodging the evil looks from your small-minded coworkers who feel that the one hour of work they've already put in before you arrive makes them superior somehow. You lock yourself in your office all day to try to get some dialogue written, leaving only to get coffee or go to the bathroom. And when you're in the hallways, you try to look as irritated as possible so that no one comes up to talk to you. Someone always does, though, and they always have a long, involved, technical question about the game.

For instance, "What am I supposed to be doing? Why did you hire me? Where's my desk? How am I supposed to know what's going on with you locked in your office all day?"

"Figure it out for yourself," is my team-building response, "I'm busy!" Because, you have to remember, I'm on the way to the bathroom.

Next thing you know it's 7:00pm and everyone's gone and you can finally get to work. That's when the network crashes or maybe just your own computer dies, probably from all the banging and kicking you give it, trying to shut up the noisy power supply fan that's driving you crazy because the stress of the deadline has turned you into an irritable old man.

So you get in about six more quality hours of work, if you're lucky, then you go home and see the stack of dirty dishes in the sink and the pile of laundry in the bedroom and you think for a second about how you should get around to them. Then you watch wasps fight on the Discovery channel for two hours.

But there IS actually an upside, believe it or not, at least for the first couple of weeks. There is something satisfying about working with intensity and focus, especially when you're not normally an intense, focused individual. Game production schedules are like flying jumbo jets: It's very intense at the takeoff and landing, but in the middle there's this long lull. Crunch mode means, at least, that the lull is over and the end is coming up. When the whole team is staying late, and you're eating Chinese food in a conference room together, it kind of galvanizes the bond between you (or at least it galvanizes the team's hatred for you, the one who's making them stay late). I find myself valuing this time with them because I realize that soon they will all move on to other projects and our little family will be no more *sniff*.

And it's such a relief to say no more planning, no more thinking of the future. It's time to wrap this game up and throw it out the window, and then stomp on its fingers until it lets go of the ledge. Then my energy level goes up, and I think the writing gets better and the characters really start to gel. Then again, so are the dishes in my sink back home, but who has the time to wash them? I don't have the time for anything. What am I doing writing this designer diary? I should be writing dialogue for the game! Aaaaaaahhh!

Anyway... I said I was going to write about the game proposal process, not complain about how hard my namby-pamby job is.

Ah... This is the day I must turn in my design proposal. It's been three months since Full Throttle was finished, and people are starting to wonder what I'm doing in my office all day with the door locked and the hot tub bubbling. Well, I'll tell you what I'm doing: I'm STALLING. I'm stalling because I'm scared to go public to the rest of the company about my new game idea. So I want to wait and keep it to myself until it's perfect. Ideally, I would keep my game design ideas secret until the game was actually done, then I could just hand the shrink-wrapped package to the president and say, "Here's what I want to do next." But you know management - always sticking its nose into things. That's why you have to turn in a DESIGN PROPOSAL, and then have a big meeting.

It's too painful to talk about my own game. Instead, let me tell others how to propose a game, so that the world can learn from the blood that was spilled on the morning of September 15:

The meeting where you hand out your design proposal is the big coming-out party for your baby. But beware, this is a party where you will see your baby beaten up and possibly killed. BE PREPARED!

Before you try to sell your game to other people, you have to understand it yourself. You have to know why it should be made. And these reasons aren't good enough:

  • "Uh, I don't know. I just want to make it."
  • "I should be able to make what ever I want. I'm God!"
  • "I have to do something or I'm going to get fired!"
  • "Because I'm tired of sitting in my office alone."
  • "I want to go to another wrap party."

They all seem reasonable, but trust me, I've tried them all and they just don't work. There is only one reason that any higher power will accept as a valid reason to make a game:

  • "This game will be a huge, huge hit and it will bring so much money raining down upon this company that some people will be crushed by the enormous sacks of cash that are going to fall on us every day after this game's released, and, in fact, we are going to need to build a gigantic incinerator just to burn the extra bills that we just don't have room for or don't have time to count because every day the unstoppable flood of moola will just keep getting bigger and bigger until we are all down on our knees, begging, "Please, no more money! We just can't take any more money!"
All successful design proposals are roughly paraphrased versions of this central idea. Of course you need some supporting arguments....

WHAT is this fabulous money-making machine? Try to sum it up in one spine-tingling sentence. You'd be surprised how many design proposals you can read completely through, and then ask, "Yeah, but what is the GAME like?"

WHY will this crazy idea appeal to anyone outside of your small circle of friends? You really have to believe that your game will have something different and fresh and appealing to gamers or it will show. People will smell your doubts like dogs smell fear. What new stuff are you bringing to the table? Why would people be better off buying your game instead of food?

WHERE do you intend to make it? And the answer is, "Here, or wherever I go once you fire me!" OK, never mind about "where."

WHEN - the answer to this question is always, "We expect code release to be in August, with the product hitting the stores in September, making this a perfect Christmas product." Do not paraphrase this sentence. Just cut and paste it right in, word for word, and move on.

WHO's going to be on the dream team? This is optional. Sometimes it helps to show that you've thought of actual resources that might be interested in your project, but sometimes it's just too much information. Use your own judgment. Whatever you do, try not to name people who are slated to be on other projects for the time between now and next September. You can always steal those resources after your game gets approved.

HOW the heck is a game this good ever going to get made in this company of mortals? Do you have any tricks up your sleeve that will save time and money? Are you going to be reusing anything from previous games? Did you find a bunch of art in a dumpster behind the supermarket that you intend to use? Do you have a genie that is going to make the game for you? List it all here.

On the Don't side, don't make your design proposal too fancy. You don't need a marbleized cover with a cutout window that shows the four-color title page. In fact, this kind of stuff can hurt your credibility. A lot of the people you're going to be pitching to may be programmers, and they don't want to read anything that's fancier than they are. Any proposal that's superslick, they figure, is trying to hide something, and they're probably right.

Don't make it too long. Don't try to stuff in every thought you've ever had about the game into the design proposal. Don't put in all your maps and object lists and your combat tables and your AI flowcharts. That stuff goes in the completed design document. Usually what people are trying to prove by putting all that stuff in is, "Look! I really have been working these last three months! I've been working hard!" Nobody cares about those details at the proposal stage. They just want to hear about what the game is and how much money it's going to make, remember?

Don't do this: First page, first heading: "The Story." I know we all work really hard on our stories and our back stories; we created this really cool world with its own monetary system and government agencies and nightclubs that we could actually go in. Save it. Your first heading should be something like, "The Game." Even if you're pitching a story game, you're not pitching a story, you're pitching a game. People are going to PLAY it, not READ it. You're trying to sell the car, not the road. Whoa, I'm not even sure what that last sentence means, but it sounds intriguing...

In the end, actually, my meeting didn't go that badly. People raised issues, and they were all valid concerns that needed to be addressed, and thinking about them helped focus the game's design. It went pretty smoothly, until the point where someone asked how much it was going to cost. That reminds me, always bring exploding smoke balls for when you have to make a sudden exit. People will be startled but also delighted by the spectacle. And that's really what we're all trying to do here, isn't it?

4th June 1998

Well, it has been a few months since my last Designer Diary. I'm going to try to get these things out faster, but as you can imagine, I've been pretty busy. And I think you know what I've been busy with:

Fan Mail.

Bags and bags of fan mail have been pouring in from all over the world, from the tiniest of children to the oldest of the incredibly old. These are not fans of the games, mind you! No, these are the fanatically loyal fans of this journal you are reading right now! You see, not everybody loves games (take it from me). But everyone loves a good tell-all diary. I get people writing to ask me to speak at their graduations, their weddings, their children's baptisms; asking me when Grim Fandango's coming out, asking me if there's any ship combat in Grim Fandango, asking me how to spell "Grim Fandango," asking me how many times I can possibly use "Grim Fandango" in one sentence. So, I've taken these sacks of correspondence and stolen myself away these last two months in the remote west wing of my suite of personal offices, supervising the temp we hired to bulk-respond to all this junk. He told me, in one of his suspicious "carpal tunnel breaks," that in many of the letters, there is one question that comes up over and over again, a question that only I can answer due to its subtle, philosophical implications:

"Where do you get the ideas for new games like Grim Fandango?"

Ha ha ha! That question always makes me laugh! Ho, ho! Ideas! Like our ideas count for anything around here. No, the sad truth is we game designers have ideas, great ideas! I'm having one right now in fact! How about a game where you play this, like, guy, who really, like, has a lot of attitude, and all this stuff keeps happening to him, and he's like, "I'm too old for this stuff!" Then there's, like, these sexy robots called the, uh, the "Guildee Fla'raux," who are trying to kill him, and uh, there's an ice level, and we do it all in 3D! See? Free game idea! Go ahead and take it! I have a new one every minute. And they'd never have the guts to make something like that here, anyway. Wait, I'm having another one: Worm people, struggling for peace, need help of sexy cyborg fairies, ice level, all 3D. Ba-Boom! Money in the bank! But we never really get a chance to even submit those cutting-edge ideas, believe it or not.

Oh, sure, we have "pitch meetings." We, the timid, helpless project leaders of LucasArts, bundle up our game concepts in swaddling clothes and carry them in the crook of our arms like the fragile, newly born babies that they are into the offices of the president, knowing we will never get to raise those children, knowing that The Man will crush our hopes and dreams in the same way he always does, game after game....

"You have just consumed deadly poison, Mr. Schafer," the meeting always begins, "and we will only give you the antidote upon the completion of this game, a game of our own design. If not, you will be dead within a year."

"I could never finish a game in a year!"

"Well, maybe you'd better get started right away then! Bah-ha-ha! It's called Grim Fandango! All the characters are skeletons! Ha ha ha! Good luck! Ha ha ha ha!"

Why do they always stick us with these pretentious, showboat projects, when really I just want to do games like...well, I have this one idea about this zany skunk who loves cheese, and it's all set in the Star Wars universe.... Oh well.

Sigh. I really have no grudges. I've actually come to love the game called Grim Fandango, much like a prisoner comes to love his jailer. I especially love it now that we are in crunch mode. I have to get all of the dialogue finished by February 2. Today's date is...

January 2, 1998

...and I'm happy because I had to work New Year's Eve. That saves me the trouble of thinking up some lame way to try to have fun that night, which I never do. Actually, sitting here working was probably one of the best New Year's I've ever had. I opened a bottle of special KISS wine (which was not as good a wine as you might think, coming from four such talented artists as KISS) and tried to listen to the ball drop on the radio. Of course, there is no radio reception in the Fandango offices (probably because our offices are actually a collection of boxcars buried 50 feet under the desert, connected by a claustrophobic system of tunnels - but they promise to dig us up if the game ships on time!). And so I tried to find a live camera somewhere on the Internet, but then I just got distracted rereading my own Designer Diary until the wine hit me and I passed out on my ergonomic keyboard. Happy New Year!

I don't know if I'm going to get the dialogue for the game done by February 2. Here is my genius plan for success: work until 4:00am every morning and try to get the most out of the "golden hours," those quiet hours after everybody leaves and before the only other guy in the building, that crazy level-designer on Mysteries of the Sith, starts cranking the Iron Maiden at 1:00am.

January 15, 1998

Remember how I said last time that crunch mode was kind of fun? Well, it's not anymore. The fun has left me, and I am left here with the part of me that doesn't like to have fun. Bad Tim has taken over. I haven't seen my house in the daylight since October. I actually left the office last night before the security lights in the parking lot went out, but only because it started to rain, and I knew my driver's side window was down. I found myself trying to dry the seats off with old Taco Bell napkins at 10:00. The water in the carpet made everything smell like mold.

January 16, 1998

This morning I was still at work. Around 3:00am I started tasting metal for no reason. I think that's a sign of nerve damage. The janitors had put some sort of carcinogenic shampoo on all of the carpets, and the smell of ammonia was so powerful in the hallway between here and the bathroom that I think one more trip and my nose would have begun to spontaneously bleed.

Finally, my computer crashed, and I went home. My car began to overheat, and I fell asleep at the wheel for an entire city block. At home, I made some tea, but as I was drinking it I noticed there were ants all over the sugar container, and a trail of them in the cupboard and across the counter. It's fun to kill ants after work. More fun than lying in bed at 4:45am, trying to convince yourself that it's really still nighttime, that it's not the next day yet. And just as you lay your head on the pillow, you hear a sound outside and desperately try to convince yourself that it's not the garbageman, it's not the garbageman.

January 20, 1998

I need to think of the upside of things again. For instance, one of the nice things about working late is the freedom it gives you to rummage through your coworkers' desks. Not stealing anything, just looking at their stuff in a lingering, intimate way that would no doubt make them very uncomfortable if they knew you were doing it. I sit in their chairs, read all the post-it notes on their monitors, check out their to-do lists, flip through their CDs. People are fascinating, especially when they're not around.

I found something else that's good for my morale: Grim Fandango fan pages! Just when you're about to cash it all in, you find something like "Grim Fandango Paradise" by Jadran Mandekic or "Land of the Dead" by Pete Shinners. These guys have excellent web pages up about Grim already, and they make it look really good! I myself might even buy a copy now! They take their Fandango very seriously, which is good because we here take it very seriously too, and it's good to know that somebody's looking forward to it besides my mother.

January 23, 1998

OK, one last crunch-mode gripe: The final insult to injury comes when your sleep cycle goes totally haywire, and you just can't get to sleep anymore until 5:00am. Then you can't get up in the morning, and when you finally get into work it's almost noon. People look at you funny and say, "Well, look who decided to come in today," somehow forgetting they've made this same joke every morning for the last month. I want to stop and stand on their toes, poke their wishbones, and yell, "Hey! I was here late!" but it just seems so petty and insecure. I do it anyway, but I don't like the way it sounds. I thought about wearing an "I WORKED UNTIL 4:00am" T-shirt, but then I'd just have to wash it, and who has time?

Then I had an ingenious idea: To let everyone know that I'm working these vampire hours, I've started wearing a cape to work. Get it? Believe me, it has stopped the funny looks! In fact, now when I walk the halls, with my cape swirling dramatically around my ankles, people don't even look at me at all. Sometimes they even look at their feet!

February 2, 1998

Well, my deadline came and went, and I'm still working. I tell you, the biggest problem about this company is that people have no sense of humor when it comes to deadlines! I mean, I meant what I said, on the 2nd of February, the dialogue would be... "done." You know, "done." But apparently they took that to mean that the dialogue would be done, or even done-done. I thought "done" was perfectly clear to everyone, but I guess once again, I have overestimated everyone's ability to take a joke.

February 15, 1998

It's done-done! Oh my freakin' God! I can't believe it's done! 7000 lines of dialogue in three months!? "Are you the biggest stud in the world," you ask? Well, apparently... yes! I printed out the extracted text from the game, and it's thicker than a phone book! I love it! I want to show it to everyone. I'm going to have it bound and wear it around my neck on a gold chain, like some sort of cross between Flavor Flav and that fat guy who no one wants to study with in the Paper Chase.

Sigh. Now I can finally finish Final Fantasy VII. Come to think of it, I can actually go outdoors. I can go out at night. I can go away for the weekend. I can do anything I want!

February 18, 1998

What do I do now? I'm so depressed. I have no direction anymore, no focus. I'm adrift. Who am I? What do I do on weekends? I miss crunch mode.

Oh forget it. You don't want to hear this endless whining and neither do I. I want this diary to be full of wisdom and insight. If I could at least impart one meaningful observation in every entry, just one nugget of knowledge that will make people think and possibly change their lives, I would be a happier man. So for this entry, here it goes. My one piece of wisdom:

Put your dental floss in the shower.

I'm not kidding. You'll find yourself flossing more often, and everything, including good game design, begins with good oral hygiene.